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Decade of Resilience: Kurtz Sees Healthier Forest After 2002 Grizzly Gulch Fire

Peripatetic blogger Larry Kurtz has Black Hills dirt permanently under his fingernails. He offers a remarkable account of the 2002 Grizzly Gulch fire, which he watched from the north side of Deadwood as the town faced imminent destruction from flames rising 800 feet. Only a switch in the wind saved Deadwood and perhaps, says Kurtz, Whitewood and Sturgis.

Also remarkable, says Kurtz, is the resiliency of the ecosystem. What we see as disaster, nature treats as healthy renewal:

Using my cell phone I gave live updates to Jack Daniels at the head-banger radio station. His home was just one of hundreds threatened by the blaze. His family returned to a near-miss now a place where oak is returning to those canyons at the foot of Pillar Peak.

In two hours during the following Spring I picked over 200 pounds of morels which carpeted the skidder trails. A hard rain made another 1000 pounds unusable.

Ten years later aspen is exploding into the hills where pine once infested these draws and buttes [Larry Kurtz, "Deadwood Not Dead Nearly Ten Years After Grizzly Gulch," interested party, 2012.05.08.

Lawrence County Commission candidate Robert Romanov drew some skeptical hissing and clucking from audience members at a Spearfish public forum last week when he suggested that one response to the pine beetle infestation is to plant different trees. He also recognized the forest's ability to come back from fire.

I look with dismay on those reddish-brown beetle patches on Spearfish Peak, not to mention the wide-ranging beetle devastation further south in the Hills. But whether those trees come down by beetle, blaze, or chainsaw, we should keep in mind the long view. Nature used to clear out patches of the Hills with fires like the Grizzly Gulch blaze all the time. And as Kurtz shows us around Deadwood, those fires clear the way for new life and healthier Hills.


  1. larry kurtz 2012.05.09

    Watching the Grizzly Gulch Fire from the location of the 1959 Deadwood Burn is ironic in that the Ponderosa pine replanted after that fire are now being systematically eradicated by the beetle.

    Thanks for sweet post, Cory.

  2. Rachel 2012.05.09

    I took some college kids up above the Lodge to do some forest sampling two summers ago, and I was *shocked* to see stunted oak up there under the pines! (Oaks can resprout from roots, so my conclusion was that there must have been a gorgeous stand of big oaks up there at one time).

    The locals have got to start seeing the overgrowth of the Black Hills for what it is. I'm convinced that it may have once been much more dominated by Spruce... (Go cousin Larry! Or is it uncle? I think cousin)...

  3. larry kurtz 2012.05.09

    Just across the Roosevelt Road from the '59 burn is an awesome stand of oak mixed with every other tree species that I know of in the northern Hills. Chanterelles and Lobster mushrooms will fruit there later in the season.

    The Missouri Buttes at the headwaters of the Little Missouri near Hulett, Wyoming teems with oak. I believe that is the location where humans first set eyes on the Black Hills as they moved inland and down the Missouri River at least 14,000 years ago.

    An ancient aspen clone in the Bear Lodge Mountains of Crook County is at risk to proposed rare earth mining in the upper Belle Fourche watershed.

    Mitakuye Oyasin. Wójupi Wi – Moon When the Leaves are Green.

    Greetings to your folks, Cousin Rachel.

  4. Rachel 2012.05.09

    Very awesome info! I've been trying to get a local lake cored so I can look at the ancient pollen from the sediments. Hoping to finally get that done this summer, and then we can really say something about how this forest has changed!

  5. Bill Dithmer 2012.05.09

    Larrry are the still big aspen groves southwest of 'Spearfish? Last time I was up there it looked like there was a lot of mining going on back there.

    Heres something relevant to what you are talking about.

    The Blindman

  6. larry kurtz 2012.05.09

    Bill, it is my opinion that the greatest local threat to the restoration of aspen habitat is cattle grazing and their associated pharmaceuticals leaching into watersheds. Those big aspen communities are certainly no match for Pfizer, Dow, and Caterpillar, that's for sure.

    It is truly horrifying to see that the fence has been opened for elk to move back and forth between Custer State Puke and Wind Cave spreading the potential for brucellosis to unvaccinated bison.

    Beware SDGFP: they are a domestic terror cell.

  7. Stan Gibilisco 2012.05.09

    Yes, I noticed the same thing. Perhaps an artifact of climate change, but definitely an indicator of the fact that Gaia knows how to take care of Herself.

    Now what's that roar that I keep imagining in the distance? Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.05.09

    Larry! The history! The biology! The big picture, connecting fire, beetle, livestock, and Pfzier. The next time I get cranky with your other assorted craziness, feel free to remind me of this deep knowledge you cart around. Thank you for the original post that inspired mine. Now sign up to be Cousin Rachel's bush scout on her lake-coring expedition! (I'm tickled to know such interesting people.)

    Bill D., you are a groovemeister. And Stan, don't give in to that anxiety... but maybe lead some neighbors on a tree-thinning excursion.

    Say, do we need a new Johnny Appleseed to follow the loggers and replant the Hills to oak and aspen?

  9. Carter 2012.05.09

    Are there no regulations about loggers replanting trees? I know that all the West Coast has them, and quite of few of the more foresty eastern states. Interesting how a state with so few trees concerns itself so little with preserving the ones we have.

  10. larry kurtz 2012.05.16

    Told you so: stupid red state.

    SDGFP is systematically exterminating the People's cougar population. Now Yellowstone wolves migrate into the chemical toilet with impunity. Woster's report.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.05.16

    Far be it from me to cry wolf. The mountain lions have left me alone on my trips through the surrounding forest. Are wolves as inclined to stay away from tasty hikers?

  12. larry kurtz 2012.05.16

    KW knows the evil that is SDGFP: I've been hammering this into Take it Outside for at least five years only to be pooh-poohed by the earth haters who hang out there.

    It is so discouraging and destructive to Black Hills restoration efforts.

  13. Carter 2012.05.16

    On the other side, not killing predators like wolves and cougars makes them lose their fear of humans. I read a statistic once that noted that there have been more attacks by cougars in the past 20 years than there were in the entire 100 years before that. Wolves are probably not far behind.

    Really, they need to be kept in national parks or something. Wild animals are all well and good, but I also like not being killed by them.

  14. larry kurtz 2012.05.16

    Which middle school do you attend again, Carter?

  15. Carter 2012.05.16

    I'm just saying that there's no reason a middle ground can't be found. Lots of people are all for this "let predators roam around wherever" thing, but there's a significant number of problems with that. You don't have to wipe them out, or shoot them when you see them, or anything. But both people and predators are better off if we work to keep them in designated areas.

    Less danger, fewer lost livestock (and pets!), and less hatred of the predators. When predators are free to move about the countryside and kill peoples' livestock, it breeds ill will for the predators. If they're kept away from the livestock to being with, people are more inclined towards allowing for conservation because more predators doesn't mean more lost money for them.

    Put yourself in the position of a (probably left-leaning) rancher. If you lost cows to wolves (this happens all the time in Wyoming and Montana), you wouldn't be very accepting of anything declaring more protection for wolves, since more wolves means you lose more livestock. But if the wolves are kept to a national park (Yellowstone, for example), then more wolves is fine for you, and since you're left-leaning, you are glad that the animals will get help surviving.

    You can't expect people to give up large amounts of money (cows cost a lot) just so wolves or cougars can breed happily. You have to find a middle ground, or conservation is itself in trouble.

  16. larry kurtz 2012.05.16

    The West is broken probably beyond repair decimated by a century and a half of cattle, sheep, and anthropogenic climate warming.

    Wildlife corridors are coming; but, only the efforts of futurists like Ted Turner will prevent the wholesale ecological collapse of every red state in the West.

    West River ranchers should be bought out, the main stem Missouri Rivers dams should be destroyed, and the CM Russell National Wildlife Refuge should be extended to Oacoma, linked with an enhanced Dakota Grasslands Conservation Proposal stretching from North Dakota to New Mexico, linked as one corridor then rewilded.

    Rewild the West.

  17. Carter 2012.05.16

    And you expect people to make a living how, exactly? I'm all about breaking up big corporate farms and ranches, but people still need to live. You can't just force them off their land for what would inevitably amount to a fraction of what they would make running their farm/ranch and make it wildlife.

    Brazil and Indian both have almost twice as much cattle as we do. If you want to stop methane production from livestock, look to those countries. We would reduce our carbon footprint much, much more by cutting down on unnecessary driving, and putting in real penalties for corporations that pollute excessively.

  18. larry kurtz 2012.05.16

    Recreation and tourism will supplant those jobs displaced by leases to private landowners who choose to participate in restoration efforts that link reservations to national grasslands and other public lands.

    In a real world fencing situation utilizing safe crossing zones the herds will go into the Yukon in the Summer and will be on the plains of eastern Colorado, western Kansas, northeastern New Mexico and western Oklahoma only in the winter.

    Wolves could follow herds by a linked corridor through Wyoming and eastern Montana.

    Troublesome are state "parks" and livestock producers where hybrid bison could co-mingle and threaten to destroy a pure genetic stock on federal lands.

  19. Carter 2012.05.16

    Have you been to Kansas? No one would visit Kansas on vacation, or Nebraska, or South Dakota (except the Black Hills). There's nothing here, there's nothing there. Tourism would absolutely not negate money lost from ranching and farming.

    It's a nice thought, having a giant national park going through the United States, but it's completely infeasible in every way.

  20. larry kurtz 2012.05.16

    This is hardly a new plan nor is it my idea; it's already in the works. Only the political will is absent.

    Florida is doing it right now: NPR.

  21. Carter 2012.05.16

    That is a comparatively tiny stretch of land. It's small stretch connecting the national parks in Florida.

    You're talking about what amounts to a single, giant national park. A few farmers and ranchers needing to move or find new jobs is one thing, but the midwest is where most of the farming and ranching is, and you're talking about kicking almost all of them out. That's hundreds of thousands of people out of the grain belt. That's practically the entire economy of the midwest.

    I'm all for connecting wildlife lands, but you're being quite extreme, Larry.

  22. Carter 2012.05.16

    Do you... do you have any idea how the world works? No culture in the history of ever has just decided "Let's get along with nature and not use any of this land for anything except letting deer roam around."

    It just isn't feasible. It cannot be done.

  23. larry kurtz 2012.05.16

    Unsustainable, it may already be dead:

    "Maplecroft says the Ogallala Aquifer in the high plains region of the US, which supplies many of the most at risk states and supports 15 per cent of national corn and wheat production, as well as a quarter of the cotton crop, is being depleted faster than it can be recharged and it is uncertain how much longer fresh water will be available."

  24. Carter 2012.05.16

    Yes, and I'm all for helping the environment, cutting down on unnecessary water usage, animal conservation, and all that, but it's something that needs to be spread out across the world. You can't just concentrate it in one area and say it'll be good.

    The problem isn't animals or farming. The problem is farming crops that don't grow naturally in the region. When you live in a low-rain area, you can't supplant rain by using water.

    The world needs to change their consuming habits. Just cutting off farming won't do anything but cause mass problems.

  25. larry kurtz 2012.05.16

    Once the herds become established it may necessary in the future to manage the populations through hunting: that works for me.

    There are smart people working on rewilding models: expect one to emerge soon.

  26. Carter 2012.05.16

    And if they can come up with a model that allows the Ogalala Aquifer to maintain a good level and allows for more animals to thrive without economically sabotaging hundreds of thousands directly and millions indirectly, and increasing the growing world food shortage, then I'm all for it. But you can't sacrifice a hundred thousand people so a million elf can run free.

  27. larry kurtz 2012.05.16

    It's true: i can not.

    With the political will, we the people will repair that which we have scorched or rent asunder out of respect to the tribes from whom we have received these lands. Their history is rich with mass migrations or dispersion due to changes in the environment.

    Think of it as adaptation rather than as an extinction level event.

  28. Carter 2012.05.16

    Their history is also rich with chopping down entire forests, burning grasslands, and driving herds of buffalo off cliffs. Really, the American Indians used the land the same as Europeans did, just with less advanced technology. They're not the great example of "living at one with the earth" that we like to proclaim they are.

    Regardless, adaptation is like learning to swim. It takes time, and needs to be done carefully, one step at a time. We can certainly find a way to adapt to not destroy the earth, but just leaping headfirst into the deep end won't get us anywhere but drowning. We've barely know how to swim, or when to end metaphors.

  29. larry kurtz 2012.05.16


    "BP oil spill residue found on pelicans in Minnesota:" MPR.

  30. Carter 2012.05.16

    The oil spill isn't a question of adaptation as much as it is about regulation. BP got away, as corporations usually do, with shoddy business practices that should not have been allowed.

    The fact is, we won't get rid of oil until we have something more efficient. Nuclear fusion is likely to be the first. Solar, wind, water, etc., will never supplant oil. It's unrealistic to think otherwise.

  31. Carter 2012.05.16

    I'm not sure what point that was supposed to make. Wildfires can burn out of control? How would grasslands going for thousands of miles prevent that?

  32. Carter 2012.05.16

    Maybe there's a really simple idea I'm missing here, but I still don't understand how transforming the midwest into a single, huge prairie makes it less susceptible to wildfires.

  33. larry kurtz 2012.05.16

    The Midwest? It's been sacrificed to industrial agriculture.

    Part of the West is a former migration route that I just saw: 230,000 square miles of dead grass, just a fraction of a that sitting downwind of 70 million acres of collapsed pine forest caused by a century and a half of human abuse.

    It will be fixed: with or without voter consent.

  34. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.05.16

    Larry, would al-Qaeda have to go to all the trouble of helicopters? Ten guys, five cars, a couple hours driving around the hills lighting and pitching a few packs of cigarettes in pine beetle land—Black Hills apocalypse by sundown, right?

    And will I be allowed to ride my mountain bike through that Dakota-Mexico grassland corridor?

  35. larry kurtz 2012.05.17

    DHS calls it pyroterrorism: a term slathered with funding capabilities.

    Cory, this concept will have to be hammered out in committee and ground into sausage just like any legislation of its scope. Neither bicycles nor rifles are allowed in the CM Russell Wildlife Refuge; but, national grasslands are open to those activities.

    Thanks for hosting us, CAH.

  36. larry kurtz 2012.05.17

    Populations of mesopredators like coyotes are exploding as apex predators are wiped out: Nature.

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